Hurricane Matthew saved its worst Florida lashing for last as its eyewall skirted the state’s northeastern coastline on Friday, whipping up pounding waves and surging tides that washed over beachfront communities.
In St. Augustine’s historic downtown, several streets were flooded as rising waters swallowed vehicles and climbed the steps to hotel entrances. Sections of State Road A1A along Flagler Beach were knocked out. And buildings in Daytona Beach sustained roof and other structural damage from high winds. More than one million people were without power and counties reported at least four deaths.
The biggest threat for North Florida’s waterfront — as well as for the Georgia islands and low-lying South Carolina coast in its path — was the rising ocean, which was being pushed inland by the still powerful Category 2 storm. A 4.73-foot storm surge measured in the St. Johns River at Mayport was the highest recorded in more than a century. In Jacksonville, a massive metropolitan target, residents hunkered down and hoped for the best as Matthew churned just off the coast late Friday.
Jim Davis fled his Jacksonville Beach home Friday with his wife and 5-month-old baby to an inland hotel, 11 years after he lost his house in Slidell, Louisiana, to Hurricane Katrina.
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“The water came in the house 16 feet high, and I was nine feet out of the canal, so the total water rise in Louisiana was insane. … We had nothing left,” he said. “Now we’re over in this house that we just renovated, and it’s like, ‘Ay, you’ve got to be kidding me.’”
But there was some promising news: in its 11 p.m. advisory, the National Hurricane Center forecasters said Matthew was weakening slightly as its eye moved offshore, past Jacksonville Beach with maximum sustained winds of 105 mph. Overnight, the storm was heading toward the Georgia and South Carolina coasts, and will remain a hurricane over the next two days as it curves north before potentially circling back south as a tropical depression over the Bahamas, forecasters said.
In Florida, Matthew was greatly feared as it ripped through Haiti — killing more than 800 people — and the Bahamas earlier this week before sparing South Florida but battering the rest of the state’s Atlantic coastline. It fell short of generating sustained winds of hurricane force anywhere in Florida, though a gust of 107 mph was recorded on Cape Canaveral on Friday morning, and never made landfall in the state during its long, close passage.
In Florida and across the southeast coast, authorities began to worry that days of watching the storm was fueling hurricane fatigue. Gov. Rick Scott warned the state not to drop its guard just yet. About 1.5 million Floridians remained in evacuation zones.
“We are very concerned about storm surge and there is potential for significant flooding in Jacksonville today,” Scott said. “Flooding in this area could potentially last for days and river flooding could last even longer.”
President Barack Obama echoed the governor, recalling the track Hurricane Sandy took in 2012. The gigantic storm initially spared much of the southeast coast but pounded the northeast after coming ashore near Atlantic City, New Jersey.
“Initially people thought this doesn’t look as bad as we thought and suddenly you get massive storm surge and lot of people were severely affected,” he said. “This is still a really dangerous hurricane. The potential for flooding, loss of life and severe property damage continues to exist.”
Florida’s first storm-related death was reported Friday in St. Lucie County, after rescue workers were unable to respond to an emergency call from a woman suffering a heart attack as winds gusted at 68 mph. A woman in her 60s also was killed in Volusia County but details were unavailable and a Jacksonville TV station reported that a Putnam County woman was killed after a tree fell on her trailer.
About 22,360 people remained in 145 shelters in 33 counties, emergency management officials said. And a storm surge forecast to rise as much as 10 feet continued to threaten low-lying areas in Duval and Nassau counties, as high tide arrived.
Schools and government offices were closed in 45 counties and 30 colleges and universities from Miami-Dade College to Pasco-Hernando and eight hospitals were evacuated in the storm zone.
All flights to Orlando on Friday were canceled. Disney World remained closed.
The state also told the University of Miami and Florida State that highway patrol troopers who normally escort teams won’t be available for this weekend’s match-up in Miami.
“All state law enforcement will be doing hurricane response and recovery,” said Jackie Schutz, Scott’s communications director.
South Florida largely dodged major impacts after the storm shifted east as it neared Andros Island in the Bahamas on Thursday. About 172,000 lost power, but nearly 70 percent was restored late Friday morning, the utility said.
Water levels in Lake Okeechobee continued to rise because of the storm, said Col. Jason Kirk, Jacksonville District Commander, but initial assessments of its impact “indicate that the dike has weathered the storm well.”
Water managers estimated that the lake levels will rise to a stage of 16.5 feet and, as a result, the Army Corps of Engineers has resumed discharges from the lake after suspending them during the storm.
On Friday, coastal cities from St. Lucie to Melbourne to Jacksonville braced for the worst.
At Florida Hospital Flagler, about 20 miles north of Daytona Beach and the only hospital in Flagler County, a skeleton crew of physicians, nurses and staff locked the doors to ride out the storm. When sustained winds reached 45 mph, county officials grounded ambulances and other emergency responders.
Hospital staff had evacuated 110 patients to other medical centers beginning on Tuesday. Only one patient, who required emergency medical care, remained at the hospital.
“We’re somewhat in lock down,” said John Subers, a public information officer inside the hospital.
In Vero Beach, further south on the coast, winds battered the barrier island but damage was more inconvenient than catastrophic.
Darrell Etheridge, who stayed in an apartment two blocks from the beach, said Matthew blew off his garage and tore down the banister to his upstairs neighbor’s apartment, but did little other damage. Winds “sounded like a pack of wolves,” he said, but added, “I got off damn good.”
When authorities, after they inspected the causeways, finally allowed people to return across to Cocoa Beach, Merritt Island and Cape Canaveral, they found neighborhoods that were mostly unscathed.
Down A1A in Cape Canaveral, marinas, car dealerships, T-shirt shops and a couple of mini-golf courses were all deserted — but undamaged by winds. Police, however, had blocked off access to Cocoa Beach Pier area because of a gas leak, one neighbor said.
At Merritt Island, electricity had already been restored to many homes. Fences and tree limbs littered the streets, but no homes were destroyed — save for a rusty old barn structure on a rural strip of the island.
Tony Price, 59, and his 5-year-old son Jadin rode out the storm in their home on North Banana Drive on Merritt Island. The power went off early in the night amid the shrieking winds. They watched a small battery- powered TV and ate Spam and peanut-butter sandwiches.
“Old favorites,” Price said, grinning, as he and his son collected shreds of wood from their fence that crumpled.
The fence and a tin shed were the only casualties. He figured it would cost him about $5,000 to repair all the damages. “We were expecting a lot more, especially because on the news, they kept saying it would be a category 4 or 5,” Price said, motioning to his son. “This one slept right through it.”
Down the street, Jim Kemp, 75, a resident of the island for more than four decades, was patching up a small tear in his roof. The only other damages: tree limbs, a half-or-dozen that plopped onto the lawn.
“I stayed with my daughter, son-in-law and two cats and a dog,” Kemp said. “We stayed up all night on the covered porch watching the wind.”
Staff writers David Ovalle, Daniel Chang, Alex Harris, Glenn Garvin, Charles Rabin and Julie K. Brown, along with the Associated Press contributed to this report.